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Obituary: James Supervia – ‘charismatic dancer, choreographer and actor’

James Supervia. Photo: Sean Conroy-Hargrave James Supervia. Photo: Sean Conroy-Hargrave

In a diverse career, the charismatic dancer, choreographer and actor James Supervia danced for Frederick Ashton and Rudolf Nureyev, appeared in pantomime, fringe theatre, the West End and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was directed by Harold Pinter.

The grandson of opera singer Conchita Supervia, he was born in Rome and spent part of his early childhood in Lima, Peru, where he showed an early interest in dance after seeing the 1948 film The Red Shoes. Later, following his telecommunications manager father to London, he enrolled at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. On graduating, he pursued a dual career in acting and dancing, appearing in Scottish Theatre Ballet’s first London season (Sadler’s Wells, 1969) and Martin Starkie and Nevill Coghill’s Canterbury Tales (Phoenix Theatre, 1971).

Shortly after, he began choreographing for Scottish Theatre Ballet and the short-lived Balletwho company while continuing to act. There were occasional appearances in pantomime in Guildford, Wimbledon and Harlow, and he was seen as Chief Stoat alongside David Suchet’s Mole and Derek Smith’s titular Toad of Toad Hall for the RSC (1973), in the first West End revival of West Side Story (Collegiate, now Bloomsbury Theatre, 1973), Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show (King’s Road Theatre, 1976) and with Northern Ballet Theatre, before joining London Festival Ballet in 1977.

The company’s 1980 Nureyev Festival saw him in prominent roles and he rose through the ranks to become a junior soloist in 1987. Lead performances included Natalia Makarova’s 1988 revival of Ashton’s Swan Lake and the dual roles of Tchaikovsky and Drosselmeyer for Peter Schaufuss in The Nutcracker (1989).

The same year (for the newly renamed English National Ballet), the New York Times hailed him as “the most Italian and convincing Friar Lawrence we have seen” in Ashton’s Romeo and Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera. He enjoyed late success as an admired Dr Coppelius in the company’s Coppelia in 2000 and also taught at and created work for its ballet school.

Later acting credits included the Priest in Dario Fo’s Abducting Diana (Cafe Theatre, 1996) and the Waiter in Pinter’s production of his own Betrayal at the Duchess Theatre in 2003.

Several of his ballet performances survive as television broadcasts and his few film appearances include Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and the Alan Bates-starring Nijinsky (1980).

James Patrick Supervia was born on September 13, 1949, and died on May 30, aged 69.

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